A Story to Tell: The Myth of Guns, Hip-Hop, and Easily Booked Rap Shows in NYC

When we talk about the Irving Plaza shooting as the catalyst for bad times, we ignore the history of racism compromising NYC nightlife.

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Complex Original

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Growing up is a process best described as getting over your fantasies. All the lovely fairy tales fed to you as a child reveal themselves as lies employed to keep you from trouble before you reach the age of 18. No one is riding down from the North Pole to leave gifts in your living room, and the rest of the X-Men-esque coalition of fairies and animals that are supposedly going to reward your accomplishments—that’s all bogus. You learn this year by year until you reach the age where the only answer left is: "Grow up!"

Hip-hop in 2016 is perhaps America’s greatest fantasy. The story of blackness in America as told by black kids has, by now, become the most American of stories. By speaking up for themselves, America’s black youth have been used by some as false confirmation of the bootstraps myth that this country revels in. But the story of a black person in America becoming successful “against the odds” is not a narrative that can be made into a one-size-fits-all tale of the American dream. A Disney-size portion of embellishment is necessary to make that egregious conflation.

When we talk about the Irving Plaza shooting as the catalyst for bad times, we ignore the history of racism compromising NYC nightlife.

Following the shooting at the T.I. show at New York’s Irving Plaza in May, the tedious fairy tale of hip-hop begetting violence returned like a cold sore. With armies taking up both sides, the fight continues over whether these black kids are really making art at all or if it’s all a big scam to perpetuate some incurable itch to commit crime. (Brooklyn rapper Troy Ave's indictment has only given the back-and-forth stronger legs.) Many lament the incident as being a sort of death blow for booking rap shows in NYC. (That line of thinking spirals quickly back into a blame cycle.) But how is it that enjoying music in a city like New York—where people of color have long complained about racist club owners and managers who won’t let you play black music or book parties where a lot of not-white folks will show up—is now suddenly ruined by a hip-hop shooting? Where was this utopia before, where cops didn’t constantly try to shut our parties down early and owners didn’t give us a hard time about having people of a certain tone and taste in their venues? Just earlier this year, before the shooting, employees at Verboten, a club in Williamsburg, alleged that the owner told employees that they "cannot book a black-people party​" at the club.

When we talk about the Irving Plaza shooting as the catalyst for bad times, we ignore the history of racism compromising NYC nightlife. This was the case even when classic hip-hop venues, like the Tunnel, existed. (That venue in particular had to deal with the NYPD profiling its attendees and searching them even before they reached the club. As Joie Manda, of Interscope Records, told Complex, “It was such a large gathering of young black people…[the police] didn’t love that.”) With the cancelation of the hip-hop night shows at Irving Plaza a few weekends ago, there seems to be a spike, but really it’s all in line with the longstanding agenda.

Hip-hop is not the cause of violence in America. Hip-hop “promotes” the use of violence as much as it tells very real truths about how Americans use violence (and the stories are often told by those who encounter/suffer/remain aware of that violence the most). The fantasy of hip-hop is to be tough enough and hopped up on enough black cool and hypermasculinity to use violence at your will. To be reckless enough with your existence in order to lose the fear of consequences. (Like Alice in Wonderland, drinking and eating herself out of her mind.) However, the correlation between blackness and violence isn’t even rooted in hip-hop.

The very idea of crime in America has long been tied to darker skin. Tough neighborhoods and politicians who are tough on crime use nothing but code to assure constituents that “We’re going to keep black kids away from you.” We vote for politicians based on their crime policies, which serve as hors d'oeuvres of systematic racism and oppression served up since the beginning of this whole experiment. It makes sure that it sticks to our black skin and when we talk of the violence we see and suffer, it sets in and paints us as the very symbols of a problem this country ignores daily.

To listen to hip-hop and accept that real things like this happen to real people, or that the feelings experienced by young black people are very much real—as is their mere existence—would create dissonance with the world we believe in at large. It would force us to accept how black the narrative of the music is and what that then means about being black in America.

It’s much easier to dismiss that idea by declaring the narrative a relatable fantasy. If hip-hop’s fantasy can be made palatable and relatable to anyone and everyone, then it affirms the idea that there really isn’t much different about being black. This is where the migraine kicks in, because how can you sell that idea and still blame the violence on black people? The truth itself becomes a scam. The game has made it so that rappers aren’t even telling the truth anymore. The fantasy must be maintained at all costs because the people that want it don’t ever want to grow up. The world they love is one where black people let them say nigga but don’t ever invite them over, nor move into the neighborhood.

When your audience wears your life like a skin that they pay for and feel entitled to, they take control of the narrative. This is a capitalist country. If you pay for it, you own it, and that means you do what you want with it. The story of hip-hop has become a commodity despite the fact that its stories continue to spring from the same well that they did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Those who are pushing the culture forward may be diverse in taste and looks but it’s still very much the black youth origin story. So why would it be surprising to anyone that something rooted in blackness would be met with such anti-blackness?

In the midst of almost constant daily mass shootings, how is it that black people are still seen as the cause of most of the violence in this country? Has nobody in New York, of any color, never shot someone they didn’t like? Did we wake up in a world where people who use their guns have some sort of regard for where and when they take lives? Did the theater shootings ruin movies? Did the elementary school shootings dismantle the education system? Did the high school shootings? Did the college shootings? Did the army base shootings? What about the church massacre? And what of the kids who kill each other with their parents’ guns at home yearly?

This is not deflection. America has a gun problem and, what, we’re supposed to believe it’s because everyone saw The Warriors in theaters or that ISIS introduced these ideas into our heads? This is a country where people shoot to prove they have the right to shoot. Where guns are glamorized in everything from children’s games to fashion. Guns are America’s true fantasy: the power to be God and end existence at your choosing. The power to exact fear. The power to ensure protection and survival in the face of the most fantastical and apocalyptic circumstances. Guns serve as the final judgment, a hadouken in the game of life, even though daily we prove that this is not actually how they work. But one fairy tale deserves another. There’s no need for guns if there is nobody to shoot and if you’re the person to shoot, then it’s imperative you been seen as a thug/other/inhuman at all times. Hip-hop and violence have been made to seem like the chicken and the egg, but there is a very real cause. The right to arm ourselves is the Second Amendment of the Constitution. This is the same document that declared black people three-fifths of a human. The right to bear arms is one we black folks inherited much later than America itself. One that causes this country great fear because its original fantasy was always making sure we never had a fair chance in the first place.

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